Nunn Better: Conversations with Steelers Scout Bill Nunn, Part 1

photo posted on post-gazette.com

photo: post-gazette.com

by Ivan Cole

Note from Rebecca: Ivan and I both wrote pieces for a now-defunct publication several years ago. (I don’t think it was us that deep-sixed it, but I can’t say for sure.) As we were talking last weekend about issues of scouting Ivan reminded me of this interview. It was a great piece on a great, all-too-often forgotten man, and we decided to run it here. And since it is so long, even for this site, I’m breaking it up into sections. Part 1 introduces the man and details some of his importance not just to the Steelers but to the sport.

History can be a fragile, fleeting thing. Even in sports where statistics and records are kept by the acre, detail and context can be easily lost over time, and with it a full appreciation of what our games were as well as what they have grown to become.

Steeler Nation is fortunate in this regard. The longevity and stability that has played such an important part in
the team’s success for over four decades has also served to preserve a degree of institutional memory. This was my main motivation for wanting to talk to Bill Nunn, longtime Steeler scout and talent evaluator.

The fact that he is one of the longest tenured individuals in the Steelers organization not named Rooney is reason enough.

But, there’s more.

Nunn joined the Steelers at a crucial time in both the development of the franchise and the transition of the NFL into the modern era. There is nothing ambiguous about the paths the team travelled before and after this critical juncture. From the beginning of the NFL in the 1930s through the 1960s the Steelers were a symbol of competitive futility and failure. Since then, they have been viewed as the very model of what a successful sports franchise can be, both on and off the field of competition.

Nunn would probably be the first to dispute that he played any significant role in this transformation. In large part that’s because he’d insist that what happened during that period was more nuanced, more involved, and more complex than the presence or actions of any one individual.

It was precisely this set of issues that I wanted to explore. Something had happened during the late 1960s that set the course for the Steelers franchise for almost 50 years. What was it? What was Bill Nunn’s role in it? Why has it endured? And, in a culture that tends to be both risk adverse and deficient in imagination, why didn’t more of the 31 other clubs simply copy the Steelers formula and claim it for their own? Was this just about the inclusion of African-Americans in the NFL or was something even more foundational going on?

I wasn’t certain that our conversation would happen at all. My attempts to make contact with Nunn were initially dead ends. Even if I were to succeed in reaching him, why would he bother to sit for an interview? Neither I nor my publication carried any particular weight that he needed to respect.

I wasn’t frustrated by any of this and even congratulated myself for having the foresight to have chosen an alternative subject, just in case. Then, remembering the line from the movie 2010, something wonderful happened. On a Wednesday morning I received a phone call from a number with a 412 area code. Before there was time for the meaning of this to register, a woman announced that Art Rooney Jr. was calling.

Really.

Now I have met more than my share of big-time politicians, entertainers, athletes, business people, educators, and media personalities—a lot of folk who most would concede to be important or merely famous. But speaking as an ordinary citizen of Steeler Nation this was… unexpected. Rooney was more than generous with his time and in providing Nunn’s information, as well as background on his own long relationship with Nunn.

About 10 days later I meet Nunn at his home in the Schenley Heights area of the Hill District. I was older than he expected. He quizzed me on a variety of topics, and for the most part I believe I passed.

You can draw connections and parallels between the Rooney and the Nunn families. Art Rooney Sr. (the Chief) was, among other things, a national Golden Gloves boxing champion who had qualified to represent the United States in the Olympic games. Bill Nunn’s father, Bill Sr., was the first African-American to play football at Westinghouse High School and likely played for the Homestead Greys of the Negro Leagues. He also served as editor of the Pittsburgh Courier, the premier black newspaper in the country. Art Rooney Jr. told me that the Chief was a fan of the elder Nunn’s writing.

Dan Rooney would have an athletic impact in high school being named the second-best quarterback in the Catholic League at time (behind Johnny Unitas). Bill Nunn played basketball at Westinghouse and in college at West Virginia State. He turned down an opportunity to play professionally with the Harlem Globetrotters. Both men followed in their father’s footsteps: Dan with the Steelers; Bill Jr. eventually became editor of the Courier.

Art Jr. reported that life as editor of the Courier could be pretty glamorous, as it was not unusual for Nunn to be traveling around town with the likes of a Hank Aaron or Ella Fitzgerald. As for the third generation, Art II is now making his name as chairman of the Steelers, while Nunn’s son (Bill III) may have the highest profile of all. An actor with over 40 films and television shows to his credit—including Radio Raheem in Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing and parts in all three of the Spider Man movies. Bill III was also in Art II’s wedding party.

Donnie Shell, who went undrafted in 1974, is an example of the sort of talent Nunn found at unknown schools throughout the South. photo: Post-Gazette

The formal connection commenced in 1966 with Dan Rooney and Bill Nunn. But I’m getting ahead of a story better told by Nunn himself.

Ivan Cole: You played basketball in high school, and played well enough to earn a college scholarship. You attended West Virginia State, but you didn’t want to go initially.

Bill Nunn: No. Coming out [of high school] the war was on and Duquesne didn’t have a basketball team because of the war. Pitt didn’t offer a scholarship. A tryout was arranged so I could go to Long Island University, but I stayed out a year because my father had a change of mind: “You need to go to a black school for a couple of years. You don’t know anything about your own people.” I said I wasn’t going to a black school. He said, “Fine. Where are you going to live?”

[Laughing] I wasn’t quite ready for that. He said, “Good. Go out and get a job and start paying to live here.” I called out to Westinghouse in Wilberding and I got a job there. I kept it for one day. I was in this steel mill. They would give me these shoes—I quit that job. Then my uncle got me a job with Union Switch and Signal in Swissvale. I was working 10 hours a day, five days a week because the war was on. And eight hours on Saturday. Seventy-two cents an hour…

I had received offers of scholarships from various black schools. Wendall Smith and Bill Robinson talked me into going to West Virginia State. Smith was the sports editor of the Courier. I don’t know what you know about Wendall.

IC: Wendall Smith was leading the movement to integrate major league baseball.

BN: No. The Courier was pushing for integration. See, that’s another misnomer. The Courier was pushing that. My father, they were all into that. But Wendall was the sports editor at the time. Wendall was the one that went to the training camp and traveled with them. [Brooklyn Dodgers, GM Branch] put him on the payroll so that Jackie [Robinson] could have someone to relate to.

That was Montreal, before he got to the majors. And really, he wasn’t the best player in black baseball. He was the one selected because he played big-time college ball. He was a great college athlete at UCLA. He was fantastic. He had played baseball in college. Football, basketball. He played it all.

He was the ideal guy for the challenge. Jackie was phenomenal. Now he had a temper, but he had to curtail all of that. And then they were dealing with the South. [The Courier] had all the contacts in the South. Black homes and stuff like that. The Courier, being a national paper, we knew the best people in those towns. At one time our biggest influence was in Florida—we had circulation in Florida of over 40,000.

IC: That’s a little counterintuitive about the Courier being so influential. You would think the most powerful black paper in the United States would be one that was headquartered out of Chicago or New York or Washington where you had larger black populations, a larger infrastructure…

BN: You would almost think that right? But that was because of [publisher/editor Robert Lee] Vann, my father, Al Lewis, and people like that. But you got to remember, we had branch offices. We had a branch office in New York City, we had one in Chicago, a West Coast division. Detroit was one of our big editions. Washington DC. If Vann hadn’t died he probably would have been ahead of them all. The main thing about the Courier was they had the newspaper. What would have been next? It would have been radio. They had the foresight to have seen this. There was a time when WAMO [a Pittsburgh radio station that served the black community] could have been bought for $50,000. But that was a time when people didn’t have the imagination. Those things happen to businesses both black and white. The originators interface and then someone else comes in and buys it.

It’s about this time that I notice that Nunn is wearing a Super Bowl ring—most likely Super Bowl IX based on the de- sign. A single diamond on a black background. It is also about this time that I realize why he has shown some reluctance in the interview.

It would be impossible to understand what was accomplished in the identification and promotion of black athletes in the major sports without at least a rudimentary understanding of the role of the Pittsburgh Courier. African-American newspapers not only filled the necessary gaps that were created by the indifference or hostility of the white press, they served as an arm of the Civil Rights movement, advocating against the epidemic of lynchings earlier in the 20th century and for integration in general and the integration of sports in particular. The Courier was not just any newspaper, or any black newspaper. It was like The New York Times, the paper of record for the black community nationally. At its peak it had a circulation of 250,000, with over 400 employees in 14 different cities.

I had been wrong in assuming that Wendall Smith was some sort of lone ranger when it came to the integration of baseball. More precisely he was the tip of a long, sophisticated advocacy effort that climaxed with the hiring of Jackie Robinson by the Brooklyn Dodgers. It would also be a mistake to confer a similar status to Bill Nunn. Imagine speaking of the accomplishments of Dan Rooney but there being no mention or acknowledgement of his father. As significant as the talents of Dan Rooney and Bill Nunn are, each was standing on the shoulders of giants. And there would be at least one other significant contributor to making the magic of the Steelers work.

Come back for the rest of the story…

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